A few weeks ago I (Jo Boaler) was working in my Stanford office when the silence of the room was interrupted by a phone call. A mother called me to report that her 5-year-old daughter had come home from school crying because her teacher had not allowed her to count on her fingers. This is not an isolated event—schools across the country regularly ban finger use in classrooms or communicate to students that they are babyish. This is despite a compelling and rather surprising branch of neuroscience that shows the importance of an area of our brain that “sees” fingers, well beyond the time and age that people use their fingers to count.
In a study published last year, the researchers Ilaria Berteletti and James R. Booth analyzed a specific region of our brain that is dedicated to the perception and representation of fingers known as the somatosensory finger area. Remarkably, brain researchers know that we “see” a representation of our fingers in our brains, even when we do not use fingers in a calculation. The researchers found that when 8-to-13-year-olds were given complex subtraction problems, the somatosensory finger area lit up, even though the students did not use their fingers. This finger-representation area was, according to their study, also engaged to a greater extent with more complex problems that involved higher numbers and more manipulation. Other researchers have found that the better students’ knowledge of their fingers was in the first grade, the higher they scored on number comparison and estimation in the second grade. Even university students’ finger perception predicted their calculation scores. (Researchers assess whether children have a good awareness of their fingers by touching the finger of a student—without the student seeing which finger is touched—and asking them to identify which finger it is.)